Lillie Mae had maxed out the guest list for her record release show at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville. “I was like, ‘Ok, I can get 10 people in.’ I was gonna buy tickets for the rest, and then it sold out and I’m like, ‘Fuck'” the country singer and multi-instrumentalist, best known for her key role in rocker White’s backing band, tells Rolling Stone Country.
That’s gotta be a good feeling, right?
“It’s a first,” she says. “Hell yeah!”
That of course doesn’t include the hundreds of theater, arena and festival gigs the 26-year-old logged playing fiddle and mandolin on the road with White over the past six years. Now she’s stepping out of that shadow on her solo debut, Forever and Then Some, which White produced and is putting out via Third Man this Friday, April 14th.
Despite her youth, Lillie Mae was anything but green by the time White tapped her to be his onstage foil and duet partner on standouts like the Lazaretto single “Temporary Ground.” At nine years old, as the youngest member of nomadic family quartet Jypsi, the singer moved to Nashville to work under the wing of late, great country icon Cowboy Jack Clement in 2000. In between countless gigs cutting their teeth and singing for their supper at Nashville honky-tonks like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn (where Lillie Mae still sings for fun), the group landed an ill-fated deal with Arista Nashville, built up some strong critical buzz and had a 2008 single – “I Don’t Love You Like That” – crack the Billboard Hot Country Songs Top 40. But even Jypsi never sold out a headlining show.
“I’ve never been nervous in my life performing, ever,” the Mohawk-sporting Lillie Mae, who makes her solo late-night TV debut on Conan tonight, says. “Full-time performer since I was nine years old, I’ve never been nervous. And there have been some moments. There have been some moments here lately.”
But if Lillie Mae had jitters by the time she took the stage in Third Man’s Blue Room, the friends-and-family crowd packing the space’s intimate, taxidermy-adorned confines sure as hell couldn’t tell. With veteran confidence, and a contagious sense of keen-witted cool, the singer showed just how well she knows her way around a melody on deceptively catchy, bittersweet, upbeat weepers like “Wash Me Clean” and “Honky Tonks and Taverns.” Alternating between fiddle and acoustic guitar, she also displayed her skill on seemingly any instrument with strings, complementing her high-reaching Appalachian pipes (and at times legit yodeling) with deft picking on stunners like “These Days” and “Loaner.”
Showcasing the family chemistry that made Jypsi one of Nashville’s lost treasures, the singer’s backing band – which included siblings Frank and Grace Rische, with a guest spot from sister Scarlett for a portion of the set that brought about a near-hoedown in the Blue Room – re-created the snapshot sheen of White’s bright, spacious production. With the arresting hooks of Forever highlights like “Honest and True” and lead single “Over the Hill and Through the Woods” freshly ringing in their heads, attendees dispersed into a part of Music City that felt many more miles removed from Music Row than it actually was.
What made you decide to step out and do a solo record now? How does it feel?
It was very natural. . . [I was] touring with Jack, and he showed interest in my songs and wanted to work with me. And we worked really well together – I love working with that guy. And it was absolutely the next step; it felt right.
Had you thought about making your own record before?
I guess, yeah. I write songs, I’m gonna sing ’em. Getting into the studio is always nearly impossible and who can afford it? If I’d had access to a studio, I’m sure I’d have been recording everything and trying to just get somebody onboard. But I’m so glad that it worked out this way – it was really natural and it just felt like the stars were aligned.
Over what period of time were the songs on this record written?
Most of them were really new. When I was recording with Jack, we recorded, like, 27 songs. So we recorded a bunch and then narrowed them down, but there’s one song on the record that I wrote 10 years ago. It’s called “These Days.” It’s kind of up-tempo, which I have a lack of [laughs].
Why do you think that is?
It’s unfortunately just the way I write. I wish so badly that more up-tempo and happier songs would come to me, but they come few and far between.
Do you have a tendency to listen to more depressive music?
For sure. If it doesn’t hurt, what’s the point? [Laughs.] But I love so much old-time and bluegrass. Growing up in a bluegrass family band, I love that music. And I love dancing – I’m an appreciator of energy and an energetic set. . . I don’t know why I can’t write like that. I have a couple [songs] that I’ve been working on lately that are actually a little more upbeat than usual.
Looking back on Jypsi, how would you characterize your Nashville experience in the beginning?
Cowboy Jack Clement moved our family here, and paid for us to live, and we recorded with him for a long time. We recorded all kinds of stuff. Coming into Nashville [was] a great, wonderful experience. And we were playing Layla’s when I was 11, 12. It quickly became home. Before that, we grew up in a motorhome, just traveling around [the country].
How would you compare working Cowboy Jack to working with Jack White?
Two very different people. Both two jokesters. I’m a jokester too, so it was a very comfortable atmosphere both times. Two very strong individuals who are helping other people out. Cowboy Jack helped [Jypsi] out so much, and Jack [White] helped me out so much. . . Two really awesome Jacks have been in my life.
For people who don’t really know what it’s like to pound the pavement in Nashville, from growing up in it, how would you describe what it’s like to be a musician here?
It’s crazy. It’s a hustle. People often [are like], “Oh, the competition. There’s so much competition in Nashville.” It’s like, there’s no competition if you do what you do and you just love what you do. It’s never been a competition [for me] – I’m gonna do it whether anybody’s listening or not. . . Playing six days a week in a Lower Broadway honky-tonk for 10 years is always fun – it’s a blast down there. But the winters, you’d suffer through the winters and play to four people and make zero money. It’s not easy.
A lot of people have this idea of Nashville trying to shape artists in a certain way, going by metrics and formulas, and discouraging artists from being themselves.
Was there a point where you realized that’s not the way to go?
Oh, from day one. [Jypsi] got a record deal, we signed when I was 14, and when they signed us they wanted to keep us as is. We signed a deal thinking that we were going to get to do [our thing]. We ended up conforming to a certain point, and then my brother [Frank Rische] quit. We ended up getting dropped from that deal after six years. That was frustrating for sure, because we just wanted to play.
How have you noticed that climate changing for artists who want to be themselves?
I have so many friends, and people who are playing “real country music,” and they’re playing across town, and we can go dance to them tonight, you know? There’s tons of that. There’s great, killer, real country artists all over the place – great musicians and singers and writers, they’re everywhere. . . There is a lot of real music being made [here], whether those groups will [or won’t] ever be heard by millions of people.
As for the family aspect of your music, you still have some of your siblings in your current band.
My brother Frank was in Jypsi. My sister Grace, she’s on tour with me now, but she was not a member of Jypsi. . . They’re the best musicians. They’re as good as anybody, so why wouldn’t I play with them?
You can’t fire your siblings, right?
[Laughs] It hasn’t happened yet.